3.The Roster: people involved or interested and their stories
5.Correspondences and FAQs: my answers to questions and letters
6.Sources: sources for parts and supplies, and a list of pickup building related sites
This page is dedicated to building electric hammered dulcimers. This is just part of my extensive site, where you'll find lots of info on me, my music, and instruments. There are pages on my recordings, travels, ARCHIVES of tour journals, background information, recent news, and lots more. Please use the link at the bottom of the page to access the main menu.
I built the first electric dulcimers twenty years ago, and started modifying my first acoustic dulcimer in that direction almost thirty years ago. It has been a road I travelled alone, both in playing modern music and modern styles, and singing instead of playing fiddle tunes, and in designing and building the first solid-body electric dulcimers. I have no doubts I am right, though it has been hard, unaccepted by both the traditional dulcimer crowd and the modern music business. But the People loved the music, everywhere I played, most often on the street, and that kept me going for thirty years. Recently I have been contacted for the first time by people interested in building an electric dulcimer, maybe having seen me perform or having found my site on the web. I've responded to the questions they asked, the best I could.
I decided I would create this page where I could post that conversation to share it with interested people, and as a place to share our experiences. It might also save me having to answer the same questions from different people, sort of like a FAQ sheet. I hope that it will show the way everyone both diverges into original designs through different concepts and ideas and converges into common standards during the same process. I invite people to include a short introduction of where you are coming from, your ideas, experiences, and an occasional progress report on where you are at in the process. You can follow the arrangement I've used for my own material or just drop a general note. I've posted some excerpts from some of the correspondence, though it repeats some of the subjects covered in the reports, and I may delete that section eventually. Please tell me if there are questions or areas I haven't answered.
Though this is a page on electric dulcimers, the basic set-up of an electric is the same as an acoustic, just like with a guitar. I realized that many folks might not have a place to start from in their designs, which means an acoustic duclimer or plans for one that will show them the basic lay-out of strings and bridges. So I've added a page with a
Finally, at the bottom of the page I list the sources I've found and used for parts and information.
I'd like to start by repeating what I've told everyone who has written me about building an electric dulcimer. while I have been building and playing electric dulcimers over 12 years now, and acoustic dulcimers for over twice that, doesn't mean I have THE answer. Personally, I really don't want to influence you too much, though I want to help in any way I can. How to express it? I am afraid of influencing you too much when you might take different directions, or come up with ideas that I didn't, and design toward the type of sound you want, as I designed towards the music I want to make. This is still the experimental edge of instrument design, I want to encourage new ideas, different ideas and innovations. Look at all the variety of electric guitars! Or keyboards! While some things could be considered "standard", there's still a lot of variety. There is by no means any "standard" design for an electric dulcimer! You should decide how you want to set up your own means to your own ends. Building an "electric" version of any string instrument is pretty simple, really, just applying the methods of designing and building electric guitars from the designs of acoustic guitars. That process has resulted in a variety of designs and materials, so you still have a vartiety of options to draw on for your own designs. Good luck!
I remember back years ago having a major discussion with Rick (Rick Fogel, an old friend of mine who also builds dulcis) about how to extend the range. We disagreed totally. When we got together again a year later with our respective dulcimers, they both worked fine, and both had almost the exact same range in the end, though we used totally opposite ideas to achieve this. Each had different "strengths", and you couldn't have built a single dulcimer both ways. Each worked for the type of music we played, his being traditional and mine .. untraditional. I can't help but think that this was better than if one of us had convinced the other that one idea was "better" and we had both designed along the same lines.
The electronics and pickups are even nearer the edge, what if humbuckers hadn't been tried? Or whammy bars? Or any of the many innovations that happened simply because someone decided not to just copy what went before. I thnk about the history of the electric guitar, and just how much innovation and experimentation there was, and the diversity has come from that..is there anything that could be called "standard"? Except that a guitar is still a guitar, and yet how much experimentation came about to create the "standard" instrument we call a guitar? But that's another subject.
I don't know, and that is the point. I have my design, and have been playing with it steady for many years now.. and in fact the electric is modeled on a non-traditional design I first built as an acoustic dulcimer 20 years ago. I like what I have, or possibly, after 20 years, I am so used to playing it this way I probably won't change and go through relearning all over! It is good enough, for me. I keep changing and evolving my music, yet I doubt I'll need any radical changes, like building one along the lines Rick followed. I think my experimentation will be much more musically in the area of all the potentials inherent in an electric instrument, with pickups and effects and all the tones I can get, and the songs I can use them for. Though of course, an effect just for the effect's sake isn't a song, isn't music, isn't art. But just like the electric guitar, its like having new tools to work with, new colors on the palette, when you go into the creative process. In fact, at this time, most of my ideas and experiments have to do with designing pickups and the wiring, not the instrument itself.
Finally, I'd like to state emphatically that I am really interested in what other people come up with. I am intertested in hearing about your experiences and experiments. Who knows, maybe I'm not too set in my ways to get some new ideas. I am just not sure where the balance lies. But I'd like to see what other people come up with in building electric dulcimers. If you can put it in a similiar format to what I have here, I'll just paste you into the roster. Or tell me what you are doing and I'll try and include in in some way. This is what my life is about, and it has been a lonely world for some 30 years as a modern hammered dulcimer player, then and electric hammered dulcimer player, in a world or traditionalists. Though there is no reason you can't play traditional dulcimer music on an electric duclimer, of course!
BRIAN THE FOLKSINGER: Well, my whole story with many photos is told at length in this website, since its my website! The short version is.. I am a singer who in 1978 -1980 took up the dulci as a percussion string instrument to replace the guitar as my primary back-up instrument. A major influence was that I also played the piano and congas. I'd also had good friends who played the hammered dulcimer starting in 1973, including my brother. After thinking about it for years, I finally drew up detailed plans in 1990, and built the first prototypes the next year. Due to disasterous circumstances, and being busy as a touring performer, the prototype of my present "millenium" model wasn't built till 1996-97. By 1998-99 I had stopped even carrying an acoustic dulcimer and the electric became my only instrument. Now lets get on to building electric dulcimers.
DESIGN: My designs were pretty well settled by '92. I have a 5.5 octave range in all keys for my standard "21st century"-"millenium" model e-dulci, though I don't have distinct octaves in the 2nd and 3rd octaves, but have them coincident, like a 12 string guitar. I also have many and various smaller models, from the simplest single bridge 4 or 6 course right on up.
CONSTRUCTION: For the body, I use solid rock maple a bit over an inch thick, combining body and pinblocks into one single unit from a single plank 18" wide. I chose this because it is the traditional material for pinblocks. It is heavy, but strong, and the wide planks are hard to find, but it avoids the possible problems and complications of joinery. I use 1x4 maple along all the edges to stabalize the plank and keep it from warping. I expect to eventually experiment with joined designs and other woods, maybe modern laminated piano pinblock material. I even think of going beyond wood. I combine piano wire with wound acoustic/electric guitar strings to get my extended range. The only thing I've changed lately is I am adding damper pedals, something that a lot of acoustic dulcimers have as well.
I carve my own hammers. After trying many woods, I prefer African purpleheart with pads of tissue and masking tape. I suggest doing the same and experimenting with different sizes and weights till you find what matches you playing style. Mine are much shorter than any "standard" American hammers, and neither resemble "standard" hammers used in China!
So far no one else has sent in anything to contribute.. of course, I can't remember if I had a chance to tell everyone who has contacted me that they could.
Brian the Folksinger: January 2009
The good news is I am finally starting to make progress again. The decision to "settle down" is starting to have an effect, though the first year was spent repairing my mother's house for her, I am now done with that and moving into stage two, which is focusing on the music projects. Though I am just beginning, I am beginning and I am good at getting alot done when I am focused on big projects, now it is time for the music.
The big news is on the electronic side of the instrument. The project is to finalize a simple, basic set-up for the electronics of the instrument, like I've finalized the physical set-up. I am experimenting with and developing all the possibilities inherent in an electric instrument.
I have made the first major step forward by building a coil winding machine to be able to mass produce coils much more quickly and easily than hand winding. I've produced the first run of coils to experiment with various magnet configurations and specifically designed to compare differences in specifications and placement, as well as the first working set. You can find details on the pickup page where I'll try to keep everyone posted on the results of my experiments. I am building my own piezo-electric pick-ups as well. This time I am keeping tabs of costs so I'll be able to sell pickups once I finalize the designs, which could be used on standard acoustics as well. I'll be experimenting with everything from pick-up design to ways of arranging and controlling multiple pickups and/or different types. I'll be experimenting with ways of integrating the pickups with selector switches and tone and volume pots, and multiple outputs, inputs and effects loops. I'll be integrating and choosing between inboard or outboard electronics for pre-amps, equalizers, power supplies, effect units, tuners, and even headphones. I look at what has been developed for both electric guitars and keyboards. I will probably keep experimenting with this end of the instrument for a while, but I'll come up with a basic set-up fairly quickly. Since the primary focus of the next couple years is recording as well, I am thinking I'll be able to post audio clips of my experiments with pickups for you to listen to, that might be interesting. Possibly the biggest choice is whether I want to pack the dulci full of onboard electronics, like a keyboard; or just keep the onboard electronics restricted to the pickups and their controls, and leave everything else as outboard gear, like a guitar. I know I need to keep transformers and other noisy electronics away from the pickups, but there is still a lot of possibilities to experiment with. This year should result in some important ground-breaking developments on this front! Yes!!
I have made some progress on other dulcibuilding fronts, though has been slow and limited the past couple years due to circumstances, of course.
Nothing has progressed much since 2005 on the dulcimer building itself, unfortunately, I am still trying to start my first production run of e-dulcimers. The problem is still getting the wood. I keep searching out and contacting mills but so far no luck. But now I have gotten a list of all the mills in New England from their trade association, I can basically call them all till I find what I need.
I am going to continue to look into alternative woods to use instead of maple, but I hate to risk experimenting. I am trying to learn what they use in east asia. I tuned both a Chinese and a Thai dulcimer in 2006, and one of the owners thought the pinblocks were teak. Mostly I am trying pestering the mills with repeated requests every month or so till they cut me some planks just to get rid of me.
I did get the airline/road case for the dulci and all it's gear, one for a keyboard. I've flown with it to Alaska, Montana, Seattle and back to the east coast acouple timwes now, and it still weighs 80 lbs loaded. It worked, though it immediately started breaking, and the company (Gator) doesn't reply to requests for parts that break off, despite the fact they claim a lifetime warrantee and I offered to pay for parts. The dulci is just a lot heavier than a keyboard, I expect. It is also not balanced right and very difficult to move any distance. I will have to build some sort of wheel set to make it really practical, more like a wagon or cart than a dolly. I am looking again at building my own more integral case for the dulci, really using its own body as the frame, and simply building a back and a protective top for the pins and strings. I am also still thinking about building a small PA into the case, basically everything needed to perfom in one package. Though I have some concern about total weight now that they have a 50 lb limit for international luggage, it might be best to seperate everything into two packages, the dulci itself and a seperate wagon with built in electronics, and recombine them once I land. Though I might find an airline with an exemption for music gear. Like I fly with Alaskan Airlines because there overweight/oversize luggage charges (the dulci is both) are much lower than other airlines.Though that might not last.
I also built an acoustic soundboard for the electric dulcimer so I can play without an amp. The street scene I work regularly in Virginia has banned amps for the past couple seasons, so I had get it done. It works quite well, Though in the end, I quit the scene rather than strain my voice. Its still just a first try and I expect I can improve on it a lot when I have a chance.
(Sara the R.F.) I am currently in a indie rock band with a hammered dulcimer. I usually just mike my dulcimer, but it has become quite a hassle. Also, it has become more and more difficult for me to tune, as our songs tend to require several notes that I have to tune specifically. I was just wondering if you knew any easy way for me to attach pick-ups to an acoustic hammered dulcimer so I could plug it in to a tuner as well as an amp? We are going on tour to the South soon, and it would definitely be beneficial.
(Brian the Folksinger) use a piezo "contact" pickup, standard gear available for accoustic instruments. There are a lot of designs to basically do the same thing, different methods of bedding make different tones.
Use one that has some bedding, rather than near direct contact. Mine is imbeded in silicone caulk in a wooden case. If you get one with too direct contact, use layers of felt till you get enough padding to deaden the impact sound ("thunk" to "thak") of the hammers striking the strings, that is the problem with piezos.
use some putty or double stick tape or something (someone holding it if nescessary) to experiment with location till you get the balance you want between the volume of all the individual strings, and generally, bass to treble. When you have a location, using a couple woodscrews to clamp the pickup to the dulci will allow you to fine-tune the tone by how hard the pickup is pressed to the dulci and thus how much the padding felt or putty is compressed. I use a "C" clamp myself, it is amazing how much the tone is effected by how tight the clamp is.
(Dan H.)(general questions about what to use for pickups)
(Brian the Folksinger) SO! Dulcimers!!!!
first off, I'd not worry about the pickups right off. They don't matter too much. Focus on developing your design and start going through some prototypes. Get a decent piezo pick-up, one bedded in silicon for some insulation.. you can pick one up for $40 at any good music store. The dulcimer kicks out plenty of vibration. I clamped it on with a C clamp or simple stickum.. as long as there is good contact.. petroleum jelly works if you tape the wire to the dulci the suction will hold the pickup.. the idea is to move the pickup around to find the best spot for your design. I ended up not even placing mine directly on the soundboard at all, but on the longitudinal brace at the bass side of the dulci, using a C clamp, and the tightness of the clamp actually can control the tone. This is way good enough to get started. The solid body still produces a lot of acoustic sound and works fine with a good acoustic mike like a Sure SM57 below or a big diaphram mike above. If it sounds good acoustic it will sound good electric.
Otherwise the fact is you have to wind your own pickups because they don't make them that big.. this is not really such a big deal, I'll attach some files with info in sites and sources, though again, this is the cutting edge of DIY... an old retired guy from humbucker made a set ($350 years ago) for my brother's acoustic dulcimer, though he doesn't use them much. The fact is, it is a bit of trouble so you better be sure that you have finished the design process before you go to the trouble, and really, the peizo and a microphone combined make a good balanced sound. Definitely good enough to get you going. I've used that combo for years of live performing because the wound pickups were too expensive to buy for the conditions I played under.
Everything is balances between tone, treble to bass, and area of the dulcimer.. ie, to-p left to bottom right, and finally type of tone.. the "thunk" sound of the hammer's impact coming though too string in the peizo, or too much sustain in the wound pickup, or the peizo, between sharp attack and peaks and overdriven distortion so everything dissolves and is lost in the wash and dissonance of confilicting tones.. though also, where do you draw the line between an effect you want and an effect you don't? Depends on what sound you want to hear and what music you want to play. In fact, on the last CD I wanted an acoustic sound and ended up with the majority tracks being two microphones, a sm57 closeup below and a big diaphram slightly above head height in front of the dulci (also my vocal mike), with the piezo adding attack generally and sustain to the low end, though the greatest lows often came from the overhead, maybe from room resonance. I didn't even use the wound pickups. Though there is a difference between what I am recording, which is usually fitted to a certain "concept" for the album, and the much greater variety of sounds I play with. I have a pedalboard and effects, I just didn't want that on this CD, maybe the next one.. though that will be originals and likely a mix of acoustic to electric.. my originals are that way even if I played them on guitar or piano/keyboard.. and I do play both, usually compose on them. Still, as a singer and musician, I am ... myself? I play the way I play, and that is that.. there is so much more potential in both design and playing than I will pursue, simply because I am going to do what I want to do. That is art..individualism, even in building.. the difference between a les paul and a strat, just like the difference between a Hendrix, a Clapton, a Santana, or a Garcia!
www.allelectronics.com - a great source of discount surplus electronics parts, I got switches, magnets, jacks, plugs, motors, piezo elements, cables and wire among other things.
www.mwswire.com - #42 plain enamel covered wire for handwinding pickups
www.magnetsource.com - a souce of all types of magnets
http://designed2wind.alphalink.com.au/ - great site on DIY high quality winding machines
other handwinder - pickup info sites:
http://users.chariot.net.au/~gmarts/index.html - good general site
I get my dulcimer parts from the standard suppliers, like Tuner's Supply and Mape's Piano Supply and occasionally from Dusty Strings in Seattle when I am there. I prefer Schaff wire. I use bronze brazing rod instead of delron to top my bridges and siderails.. not sure that I won't switch to delron at some point.